by ZACH KAYSER
Bill Kozlowski is writing his life story using letters of the alphabet embossed on bits of metal scrounged from license plates across the country.
Together with his wife Lois, the retired Army veteran makes signs by cutting out letters and rearranging them to spell words, like a kidnapper would create a ransom demand from pieces of magazines. The Kozlowskis use their artistic power for good, however. In addition to the garage of their home on Fifth Street, their signs end up decorating the homes of veterans elsewhere in Minnesota and in other states. Last month, the two finished a tour of the South, picking up license plates from used car dealerships and scrapyards and individual donors, as well as delivering finished signs to veterans for free. The Kozlowskis will make signs that spell out “Veteran”, with the recipient’s service branch made out of plates from their home state, or just plates that are aesthetically fitting. “It’s good to be retired because — believe me — if I had a job, I couldn’t do this,” he said.
Kozlowski said the interstate roamings were necessary in order to find suitable raw materials for his work. For example, since the word “veteran” contains two “E’s,” license plates that include that letter are particularly valuable to Kozlowski on his search. It is difficult to find enough good license plates, especially now that many states make their plates flat instead of embossed, he said. He never arranges the plate pickups ahead of time, instead relying on fate and the goodwill of strangers to provide.
Kozlowski told a story from a recent trip about how he spotted a house with promising-looking piles of junk in the yard, but when he went to investigate, he was greeted by a man holding a machete. When Kozlowski gave the man his spiel and asked the blade-wielding man if he had any plates to donate, the man replied with a curt, “No!”
“He walks up to me, puts his hand up, [and says] ‘But I want to shake your hand for being a volunteering veteran,’” Kozlowski recalled.
Each sign takes two or three days to make, and the Kozlowskis have made about 250 signs so far, he said. Sometimes veterans will shed a tear at the moment they’re given the recognition of a Kozlowski sign, he said.
Kozlowski’s favorite plate is that of New Mexico, which includes the unique symbol of the Zia Indians. Its four points symbolize several different four-pointed philosophies endemic to Zia culture, including the four seasons and the four parts of human life: childhood, youth, middle age, and old age.
The license plate signs are Kozlowski’s way of both giving back and resting, after a fruitful but difficult career. Koslowski bought the Black Horse Bar and Grill on Old Homer Road, developing it over 40 years into a thriving business. He also has struggled with substance abuse and addiction, he said.
“You think about giving back in life,” he said of the signs. “And this is just my thing: giving back.”
During his time in the Army, Kozlowski at one point served as a guard for the infamous United States Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. He seems to appreciate the irony of a former prison guard making a quaint hobby out of collecting license plates, the stereotypical product of prison labor.
Kozlowski is also a driver for Disabled American Veterans (DAV) — he shuttles patients to medical appointments even if they’re in the far reaches of the state. He insisted on including in the story that the local DAV is in desperate need of new drivers. Interested parties can visit www.dav.org to search for their local chapter and apply to help out.